Mike Hale, PhD, is the vice president of education for North America for VitalSource. Mike has more than 25 years’ experience in the field of education as a teacher, author, professor, and leader.
This Q&A was conducted by Amy DuPont, an industry vet with two decades of sales and marketing experience in Ed Tech and publishing, as part of a series focusing on Impact.
Q: How do you define impactful learning? How has this changed in the last 5-10 years?
A: The biggest change is the increased focus in higher ed on a student’s learning and whether a student is successful in completing their course of study. What I mean by that is that faculty and university leadership have always cared about student learning in the abstract, but now there is more interest in measuring and improving upon that success.
You can draw a line straight from this to the increased scrutiny regarding for-profit colleges and universities during the Obama administration. A significant number of students were getting federal student loans, and too many of them were either not graduating or failing to get relevant employment upon completion of the programs. As a result, institutions were required to show their value. While a few institutions were forced to close, the strongest programs survived by either continuing or improving their focus on student learning. Because of that, some of the most interesting experiments are happening in programs in which they are trying to massively scale high-quality learning. I should add that the students in these programs often come from underserved academic backgrounds, and these institutions are often doing a terrific job of giving them every chance for success. One of the fairest criticisms of this increased scrutiny is that it was not applied to not-for-profit institutions as well.
We have also seen the emergence of large online programs in the not-for-profit sector, including some that were created from the start as online programs, with quality, individualization, and scale as goals. Some institutions were created as standalone entities, like Western Governor’s University (WGU), while others were created as a part of a traditional school, like Southern New Hampshire University. WGU has pioneered a low-cost, competency-based model that allows students to work at their own pace. They are always thinking about how to scale high-quality learning. As a result, they invest in instructional design and technologies, including one of our platforms—Acrobatiq. They’ve built many courses specific to the learning needs of their students and are always trying to improve in this area.
While I said there has been an increase in the focus on learning, if a student from 1980 was transported into a classroom in 2020, they wouldn’t see much difference beyond personal technology and a much more diverse student body. What actually happens in the classroom hasn’t changed much. What has changed is course materials’ availability, access to digital materials in a learning management system (LMS), and the increased prevalence of courseware in STEM courses. Given the importance of active practice, courseware has had a tremendously positive impact. One of the great challenges ahead is how to create courseware at scale.
Q: What’s an example of impactful learning in action?
A: One of the best stories on impact is what has happened at Georgia State University over the past 10 years. Georgia State is one of the largest schools that has looked at student performance and tried to use data to test different methods and technologies to see if it makes a difference. For example, they noticed that a lack of success in an early intro math course was the trigger for many dropouts. For that particular course, they reviewed various products and adopted a McGraw-Hill courseware. They had students work in a computer lab with teachers available to help coach and had great results.
From using courseware and predictive analytics to rethinking advisement, they increased graduation rates, lowered the time to graduation, and eliminated achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, or income. While Georgia State remains an exception, more universities are beginning to view the education experience systematically.
Q: What innovations in learning science research excite you?
A: Just the idea that you can create a product with assessments built in. I know it seems simple; however, the most important thing is that it transforms a student from thinking about an assessment as purely summative to formative—that is, getting students to start viewing assessments as part of the learning process as opposed to something that you do at the end before moving on is truly transformative. We’ve come a long way in the STEM courses but pushing that out beyond STEM can be really powerful. What VitalSource is able to do with SmartStart, our program which uses machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence to create assessment items from a textbook, is incredibly powerful. Studies have shown that having students actively engaged in assessments as a part of reading can improve learning by six times and lead to a 20% increase in scores.
Q: Why is it difficult for education companies to use cognitive science?
A: Actually, plenty of education companies do use cognitive science when building learning solutions, and we are certainly one of them. We have cognitive scientists on our team that continue to contribute in the field. The difficulty is how do you apply these principles at scale beyond intro-level STEM courses, which are able to justify the cost of creating the product given the high enrollment numbers. Solve that—and we think we have—and you can scale significant improvements in student learning.
Q: What’s important to replicate in an online experience that, until now, has been out of reach?
A: This one is easy: how to scale human-to-human interaction. A great teacher, in having a conversation, reading what you wrote, or seeing how you did a problem can help scaffold a student to the next level. Technology can do some of this, but not all of it. It’s important to find ways, through the technology we have, to have that teacher-to-student interaction for the coaching aspects of instruction.
Fortunately, didactic instruction, or the delivery and acquisition of foundational knowledge, does not require humans for successful execution. While most of us grew up listening to teachers’ lectures, much of that content is better delivered through text or video, with knowledge checks through assessments. This frees up faculty to assess learning through the assessment data, direct student conversations, and then scaffold learning.
Importantly, by moving the didactic portion of learning to scale and learning solutions, a university can control for the variance in instructional quality. Most instructors are not trained as teachers, and the quality of teaching can vary widely.
Additionally, I’m a big proponent of the value of group discussion, and we very much need teachers to facilitate those across the curriculum. Removing didactic instruction as a major responsibility of faculty frees them up to coach and facilitate group discussion where appropriate. It is clear to me that teaching and modeling civil discourse is one of the most important things we can do in this increasingly complicated and fractured human experience. Technology can free teachers to concentrate on meeting the student where they are.
Q: If you were still in a classroom, what would you do? How would you adjust to the COVID-19 world?
A: I would seek out technologies that help with the didactic piece of learning. You can assign reading, but it's hard to knowledge check on that. You can ask students to write as an assessment of their understanding, but that is not always the most appropriate or efficient means of doing so. For any content that is foundational in terms of knowledge building—the “remember and understand” categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy, that is—I would seek ways to do less telling and to use technology to check understanding. I would then find creative ways to interact with groups of students through video conferencing.
Q: How has learning science influenced the types of products and experiences that VitalSource is creating?
A: Significantly. Certainly, it has affected the way we are incorporating some of the technology we acquired with Acrobatiq, a company founded on the principles and research of learning science. Now, we are incorporating that technology with other things we do. We’re continuing to test where we can, conducting studies, and making sure what we’re doing is as proven as possible. I think you’re going to see an increasing focus on that for us.
Q: What is your pitch to someone who says, “I don’t need more technology in my class”?
A: I would say that I agree you don’t need more technology for the sake of technology. The important thing is that you’re giving students every opportunity to be as successful as possible, and we should adopt technology that meets that need. It is important to understand that a little less than 60% of students who go off to a four-year college graduate within six years. And, of the ones that do, many end up with significant debt. Maybe what you’re doing is all that needs to happen in your particular classroom and that’s great, but let’s talk about what you’re doing to give every student the best opportunity for success.
Q: Talk about VitalSource’s overall commitment to positive impact on the student journey.
A: VitalSource was founded 25 years ago to do exactly that—to ensure that students get the materials they need, wherever they are, when they need them. It’s a simple concept. It’s silly that materials are required for success, and then it's optional to get them. When you’re becoming a physician, it’s not optional to get a cadaver.
Course materials are either required or they’re not. We’re founded on that simple notion, and as technology has evolved, we continue to be sure we do more than just ensure students receive the materials; we ensure that they have access to the best learning solutions available, whether we are delivering them on our learning platforms or facilitating the delivery of other platforms.
In short, we have a laser-like focus on getting students what they need, where they are, when they need it, as we continue to develop more study tools that incorporate learning science.
Article: JIME - The Open Learning Initiative: Measuring the Effectiveness of the OLI Statistics Course in Accelerating Student Learning
 Lovett, M., Meyer, O., & Thille, C. (2008). JIME - The Open Learning Initiative: Measuring the Effectiveness of the OLI Statistics Course in Accelerating Student Learning. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2008(1), Art. 13. DOI: